Lebanese troops began deploying south of the strategic Litani River early Thursday, a senior military official said, after the Israeli army stepped up its withdrawal from the south Lebanon region and handed over some of its positions to U.N. peacekeepers.
The rapid developments aimed at ending 34 days of fighting came after Lebanon’s government Wednesday agreed to deploy troops near Israel’s border for the first time in 40 years.
A senior official in the Lebanese army told The Associated Press around dawn Thursday that Lebanese troops, backed by tanks and other armored vehicles, had begun arriving south of the river in line with the U.N. cease-fire plan. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to make statements to the media.
An Associated Press reporter saw about 40 military trucks and jeeps, carrying soldiers, equipment, luggage and plastic water tanks, heading to south Lebanon at around 4 a.m. The trucks and jeeps hoisted Lebanese flags as they drove into central Beirut on their way to south Lebanon.
The Lebanese army had been assembling north of the Litani River, 18 miles from the Israeli border.
No agreement on Hezbollah disarmament
The Lebanese Cabinet decision fell short of agreement on disarming the Shiite Muslim militant group, which has insisted it has the right to defend Lebanese territory as long as Israeli troops remain in the country.
More than 50 percent of the areas Israel holds has been transferred to the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL, the Israeli army said, adding the process would occur in stages and would depend on a stronger U.N. force as well as “the ability of the Lebanese army to take effective control of the area.”
The army said it was the first time it handed over territory to the United Nations, although it had redeployed some of its forces previously.
The cease-fire plan calls for the 2,000-member U.N. force to increase to 15,000 and to be joined eventually by an equal number of Lebanese to assume control as Israeli forces withdraw.
Before dawn Thursday several hundred Israeli soldiers crossed back over the border.
Some smiled, sang and rejoiced, while others just looked relieved to be out. One soldier sat down and cried, his head buried in his arms, after reaching Israel again.
Many said they had little faith that UNIFL and the Lebanese army would be able to rein in Hezbollah.
“I ... hope so, but if we have to come back we’ll come back and we’ll do it again,” said John Braun, a military doctor.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said completion of the Israeli pullout depended on the presence of both the Lebanese army and an international force. She also said she wanted the international force to help monitor the border to prevent Iran and Syria from replenishing Hezbollah’s weapons.
“If there is a place that Israel can withdraw from and the Lebanese army can come, plus international forces, we’ll do it,” Livni said after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York. “But if it takes time until the international forces are organized, it takes time until Israel withdraws. This is the equation.”
Israel had as many as 30,000 troops in southern Lebanon during the conflict that began July 12 when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the Israeli chief of staff, said earlier that Israeli soldiers would stay in southern Lebanon for months, if necessary.
Despite continued division over disarming Hezbollah, the Cabinet decision to deploy Lebanese troops was a major step toward meeting demands that the guerrillas be removed from Israel’s northern frontier. It would also mark the extension of government sovereignty over the whole country for the first time since 1969, when the Lebanese government sanctioned Palestinian cross-border attacks on Israel.
The Lebanese government, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, met for the first time since the cease-fire took hold Monday, after two postponements because of divisions over Hezbollah’s arms. The guerrillas have resisted pressure to give them up or even withdraw them from the border area.
“There will be no confrontation between the army and brothers in Hezbollah,” Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said. “That is not the army’s mission.”
“There will be no authority or weapons other than those of the state,” Aridi said. “If any weapon is found, even the brothers in Hezbollah have said ’Let it be in the hands of the army. No problem.’ “
The militant group has insisted it has the right to defend Lebanese territory as long as Israeli troops stay.
‘No visible military presence’
Hezbollah’s top official in south Lebanon hinted that the guerrillas would not disarm or withdraw but would keep its weapons out of sight. Hezbollah will have “no visible military presence,” Sheik Nabil Kaouk told reporters in the southern port city of Tyre.
Hezbollah has used charity work and social welfare programs financed by Iran to win wide support throughout Lebanon.
It continued that tradition Wednesday, saying it would help tens of thousands of Lebanese reconstruct homes that were destroyed by Israel, a move likely to deepen support among Shiites, who make up about 35 percent of Lebanon’s 4 million people.
At a Beirut high school, Hezbollah officials took information from hundreds of people who need money to rebuild. The group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has promised money for civilians to pay rent and even buy furniture.
The Lebanese death toll, meanwhile, rose to 842 when rescue workers pulled 32 bodies from the rubble in the southern town of Srifa, target of some of Israel’s heaviest bombardment in the 34-day conflict. The figure was assembled from reports by security and police officials, doctors and civil defense workers, morgue attendants as well as the military.
The Israeli toll was 157, including 118 soldiers, according to its military and government.
Foreign diplomats worked to assemble the international force that will augment the current 2,000-member U.N. peacekeepers, known as UNIFIL, who have been in the area for more than two decades. The U.N. hopes 3,500 international troops can reinforce the contingent already on the ground within 10 to 15 days, Assistant U.N. Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi said.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said France is willing to lead the enlarged U.N. force until at least February.